The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden selects Slaughter as acting chair of Federal Trade Commission, Rosenworcel as acting chair of Federal Communications Commission

(Alex Brandon/AP)

President Biden on Thursday appointed Rebecca Kelly Slaughter as acting chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, a move that positions the Washington watchdog agency to take on a more aggressive role in policing Facebook, Google and other tech giants in Silicon Valley.

Biden also designated Jessica Rosenworcel to serve as the acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission. Rosenworcel is a fervent supporter of net neutrality and has called on the FCC for years to put its muscle behind a massive effort to build out broadband to the country’s most unserved communities.

The two appointments reflect the tectonic political shift underway in Washington as Democrats, newly in charge of the White House and Congress, prepare to roll back a slew of deregulatory actions implemented under President Donald Trump. Biden and his congressional counterparts over the past year have teased an ambitious digital agenda, promising to rein in Silicon Valley, rethink the legal protections afforded to tech giants and expand internet access nationwide.

But Slaughter and Rosenworcel still may face early obstacles at their respective commissions. New vacancies at the FTC and FCC may leave it deadlocked at two Democrats and two Republicans. The stalemate will not totally trap the agencies in policy paralysis, but it still may set back some of their most ambitious plans until Biden nominates additional Democrats and the party’s razor-thin majority in the Senate can confirm them. Biden also must decide whether to name Slaughter and Rosenworcel as permanent chairs.

Amazon, Facebook, other tech giants spent roughly $65 million to lobby Washington last year

Slaughter takes the reins at the FTC after serving as a Democratic commissioner since 2018. She stands to inherit an agency that in recent years has issued record-breaking penalties against tech companies for jeopardizing their users’ privacy — and that last month sued Facebook for allegedly violating federal antitrust laws.

In those and other cases, Slaughter has supported enforcement even as she has joined the FTC’s fiercest critics in saying the commission should have acted more swiftly, and decisively, to penalize the tech industry for its missteps. She has called on the watchdog agency to calibrate its punishments better so that harmed Web users are made whole — and companies in Silicon Valley are deterred from committing similar acts in the future.

“The threats to consumer privacy are growing. They impact our most vulnerable citizens more than most, and they demand new solutions,” Slaughter said in a September 2019 speech that illustrated her views about the agency’s responsibility to penalize wrongdoers. “My hope is that the ‘near future’ brings renewed action on this front across the board, from the FTC, Congress, advocates and industry, and I feel both humbled and privileged to get to take part in this effort.”

Privacy watchdogs said they expected Slaughter, a former top aide to now-Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), to try to use all the powers at the commission’s disposal to probe the tech industry for potential wrongdoing.

“She is firmly of the belief there are things the FTC should do today that it is not doing today and some of their weakness is self-imposed weakness,” said Justin Brookman, director for consumer privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports.

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Rosenworcel, who has served as a Democratic commissioner at the FCC for the past 8 years, assumes the reins at the telecom agency at a moment when the U.S. government is under immense pressure to ensure all Americans have quality internet access amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced families to work and learn from home for nearly a year now. She has been most vocal about the persistent harm wrought by the “homework gap,” or the disparity that leaves millions of students nationwide lacking the broadband connectivity required to complete their classwork on time.

“If you want evidence this is not right, it’s all around us,” Rosenworcel said in a statement earlier this month. “There are people sitting in parking lots using free Wi-Fi signals because they have no other way to get online. There are students who fall in the homework gap because the lack the high-speed service they need to participate in remote learning.”

To start, Rosenworcel must take over ongoing agency work to implement a new pandemic stimulus program authorized by Congress that would provide rebates to Americans struggling to afford internet service. Even with the FCC in deadlock, experts said they also expect Rosenworcel to try to release billions of dollars in funds to help students obtain access to Wi-Fi hot spots and other technologies needed to get online. The FCC under just-departed GOP Chairman Ajit Pai ruled that this pot of money, known as E-Rate, only is meant for classroom use -- a position many Democrats oppose at a time when kids are still learning from home as a result of the pandemic.

“She firmly believes E-Rate funding should, and can, be used to provide home connectivity for students for distance learning,” said Greg Guice, the director of government affairs for Public Knowledge.

In doing so, Rosenworcel also will face early, intense pressure to try to reinstate net neutrality protections, which require internet service providers treat all web traffic equally. Pai eliminated those rules over the objections of Democrats like Rosenworcel, who said at the time the agency had “failed the American public.”

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